English has become the chosen language of travel. No matter where you go, and who you meet, you will most often have to use your English at some point while traveling. Sometimes it’s because you don’t speak the native language, sometimes it’s because you meet people from all over the world and for an even playing field you result to group discussions in English so everyone understands. It’s a language that is taught as a second language in schools around the world and at least here in Europe it has become unusual to find young people that don’t have at least a basic command of the English language. Whether this is a good thing or bad thing is a whole different discussion but I think we can mostly agree that this is the way it is.
Because of this it’s understandable that people want to know before they travel somewhere whether the locals speak this international language of travel. And people that travel to Iceland are no different.
Question: Does everyone in Iceland speak English?
I can’t say whether EVERYONE in Iceland speaks English but I would say that the majority of Icelandic people speak it fairly well. In the service industry I would go as far as saying that probably 98% speak English well enough to make themselves understandable. So not finding anyone to speak English to you in Iceland is not something you should worry about. In fact, many Icelanders speak more than one and often more than two foreign languages. Of course not everyone but quite a few.
I get a lot of questions from my guests about the fluency of Icelanders when speaking English and it seems to surprise them how well we speak it. I don’t know if that’s because they weren’t expecting that we spoke any English at all or whether they are just genuinely impressed with our proficiency.
They often wonder whether the reason is the school system and then some even conclude that we must be bilingual or that we speak English to one another in our homes. We don’t. We have our own language, Icelandic, and that what we use in our everyday lives when you guys are not involved and around. But I believe these ponderings warrant a bonus question for today’s Quick Q&A.
Bonus Question: Why do Icelanders speak English so well?
Before we go any further I have to mention that I have heard my expat buddies and acquaintances from English speaking countries make fun of the fact how Icelandic people in general overestimate how good their English actually is. I have never heard anyone elaborate on that though and I’m not entirely sure whether they actually think our English is bad or whether they’re just poking fun at the fact that we always think we’re the best at everything. I think it’s good to remember though, in all of this, that for most Icelandic people English is their second language and any opinions on whether it’s good or not should take that into consideration.
I cannot speak on behalf of everyone but I think for me and those around me the school system is not the reason my English is at the level that it is at. I started learning English at school when I was 12 (if I remember correctly) and it was one of those subjects I always got top grades in without any effort. English just made sense to me somehow.
I already knew quite a lot English when I started taking lessons at school and although I’m sure my education helped me, like when it comes to grammar and specific vocabulary, I am also quite certain it was not the deciding factor. I read a lot as a kid and because there are only so many books published in Icelandic for children and teenagers I ran out of interesting books to read very quickly. Chick-lit as a genre also didn’t exist in Icelandic so I turned to books in English. I’m not even going to tell you how often I read Pride and Prejudice.
I’m seeing the exact same thing happen with the princess. She started reading books intended for grown ups in English a while ago (she’s 13) and now she’s going through a big Harry Potter phase and she chooses to read the books in English because that’s the original language they were written in.
Another thing that influenced me was TV. My best friend had satellite TV and we would watch the DJ Kat Show on Sky One religiously plus that most of the cartoons on Icelandic TV back then were not dubbed but had subtitles. Although that has changed now, at least when it comes to children’s TV, TV in Iceland is still not dubbed like they do in many countries around us. The Icelandic market is also very small so it’s very expensive to produce quality TV in Icelandic and because of that most of our TV is in English with Icelandic subtitles. Now we also have Netflix in Iceland and Icelandic subtitles aren’t even an option so if you are watching something in Spanish or German or something you’ll watch that with English subtitles.
My friend, that I mentioned before, and I also both had fathers that were very early to adopt computers and the internet and if we wanted to use these wondrous things we would simply just have to learn English. A lot of the computer games back then were text based so you had to write commands to get the characters to do stuff. I didn’t know what the word a condom meant but with a help of a dictionary I was able to buy one on Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. I don’t know if our parents knew we were playing that game actually. Today it’s Snapchat and Musical.ly and YouTube. If there’s a will to use these things there’s a way.
So I guess what I’m getting at is the fact that we as Icelanders, much like the rest of the world but maybe even more so because of our size as a nation, are exposed to English in our everyday lives more than you would probably imagine. And I don’t think you could resist learning it even if you wanted to. And, because there’s not a lot of people in the world that speak Icelandic we are forced to apply ourselves to learn other languages to communicate with the rest of the world.
I never sat down and made a plan for how I was going to improve my English – it just happened. At least with the spoken English. With written English I consciously made a decision to write more in English for practice until it came more naturally to me. I know I don’t write it or speak it like a native speaker, and I definitely have my moments where I struggle with pronunciation or finding the exact word I am looking for, but when I speak English today I’m not translating from Icelandic – it comes from a different place. And if I had to write something to express my innermost thoughts and feelings I’m not sure I would necessarily choose Icelandic to do so. Or at the very least I’d be equally comfortable with doing it in English.